As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 383 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

Contemporary Issues Related to California's Water

Adapted in part from "California's Water Crisis" at


Six central California counties are projected to grow by over 200%. Los Angeles is expected to remain the most populated county in California, followed by Riverside County, San Diego County, Orange County and San Bernardino County. Overall, the state's total population will increase to 60 million people by the year 2050, an increase of over 56% from the 2000 census numbers.

Department of Water Resources director Lester Snow testified at a congressional hearing in July 2008 that Lake Oroville, the main reservoir of the State Water Project, was at 40% capacity, and expected to dip as low as 20% of capacity by December. Lake Shasta, main reservoir of the Central Valley Project, was only at 48% of capacity at the time. Water has dipped so low in most reservoirs that officials say it would take more than one wet season to improve conditions. However, things aren't looking much better for the future: climatologists see no El Nino or La Nina condition forming, and have no expectations for unusually wet winters. The Colorado River Basin has also been experiencing drought conditions for the last 8 years. However, last year, snowpack was as high as 122% of normal. This did improve conditions somewhat at Lake Powell and Lake Mead; however, after many years of drought conditions, it will take several years of above-average Map of draught areas in U.S. by 2011conditions to improve conditions at these reservoirs. The map to the right shows areas of the US in the 21st Century that are experiencing moderate (yellow), severe (red), and extreme (purple) drought.

However, water project operations have impacted native fish populations, and the Delta smelt, once the most populous fish in the estuary, is now on the brink of extinction. Map of Sacramento-San Joaquin DeltaIn August of 2007, Judge Wanger, a federal court judge, ruled both the State Water Project and Central Valley Project were operating in violation of the Endangered Species Act, and ordered reductions in the amount of water exported from the Delta. He ruled again in August 2008 that project operations were jeopardizing the salmon. He did not order any further adjustments at the time, and the effect of this ruling has yet to be determined.

Besides being the hub of California's water supply, the Delta serves many other uses. The Delta is home to a large and growing human population; hosts a great deal of water traffic for both business and recreational purposes; connects the Bay Area to the Central Valley via three state highways that cross the Delta; has power lines, oil and gas transmission lines, and railroads running throughout the area; and contains more than a half a million acres of incredibly productive farmland. All of this property and infrastructure is protected by an extensive network of aging levees. Much of the network of levees through the Delta has been built only to 100-year flood standards, and levees have failed 162 times in the past 100 years. A major levee failure would allow the salt water to mix with the fresh water, cutting off water deliveries for at least a year and costing the state billions of dollars.

Solving Delta issues has always been a challenge. Water agencies, farmers, environmentalists, recreational interests, residents and other Delta users have many competing objectives and desires for the Delta, which has resulted in continued studies and legislative paralysis with nothing ever really being accomplished. Most plans in the past have attempted to satisfy all stakeholders, with the end result that nobody is satisfied.

Indian water rights must be quantified either by litigation or by congressional action before they can be used. Some tribes have already had their water rights settled. The complexity of this issue is demonstrated in the case study showing how the issue of Indian water rights has played out on the Klamath River.

These issues have been the subject of years of litigation, and as a result, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has had to spend millions of dollars in restoration and mitigation projects. These mandated projects have also reduced the amount of water DWP has been able to export to Los Angeles. Due to court-ordered restoration of Mono Lake, and the Lower Owens River, as well as continuing dust mitigation on the dry Owens Lake bed, more water has stayed in the Owens Valley for "in-valley" use than was exported to Los Angeles. This was the first time this has occurred since the aqueduct was completed. According to the DWP, the Owens Valley supplied just 17% of the water for DWP customers in 2007, considerably less than the previous year, when the valley supplied 62% of DWP's needs.

Map of California water problems


  1. The majority of residential water use is used outdoors for landscaping. The typical California lawn requires several times more water than native plants. Inefficient irrigation systems compound the problem by overwatering lawns, creating excess spillage. Besides wasting water, overwatering generates more polluted runoff, which damages the rivers, lakes, and beaches. photo of water conserving landscapeThe Pacific Institute determined that outdoor water use could be reduced by at least 32% by using better irrigation schedules, "smart" irrigation controllers, and drip irrigation systems. Further significant reductions could be made by the use of drought-tolerant or California native plants for landscaping. Many municipalities are beginning to consider landscape ordinances, restricting the amount of grass and type of landscaping for new developments. Water districts have also implemented rebate programs to encourage homeowners to change their outdoor landscaping to artificial turf or other drought-tolerant landscaping. Both the Pacific Institute & PPIC reports determined that water pricing could be adjusted to encourage conservation. When water is not properly priced, it is frequently wasted. Flat rates and uniform pricing policies do not encourage conservation or efficiency investments. Pricing at appropriate levels can be an important conservation tool.

One way to deal with urban water conservation was announced by Governor Brown in 2015 - mandatory cuts. Brown has ordered cities and towns to cut their water use by 25 percent. But this approach does nothing to address agriculture, which consumes four times as much water as urban areas do.

While other water agencies have completed local surface storage projects, no major infrastructure or surface-storage improvements have been made to the State Water Project facilities since construction was completed in 1973, despite the addition of 20 million new residents. Funding for dams has been a sticking point in getting a water bond measure passed, with the Department of Water Resources favoring new surface storage to capture more runoff. The new dams have met with opposition from Democrats and environmentalists, who argue that dams are too expensive and would benefit only a few, and that the money would be better spent on improving conservation and other projects to increase regional self-sufficiency.

Recently, there has been much debate given to an old idea : the peripheral canal. The peripheral canal would route water around the Delta instead of through it. Photo of Sacramento River Delta areaThe idea of a peripheral canal has been highly controversial ever since it was defeated by voters in 1982 in a divisive ballot initiative battle which pitted Northern Californians against Southern Californians. The canal was seen as a Southern California water grab by the northerners, who feared the Delta would be "sucked dry" in order to water the lawns and fill the swimming pools of Southern California. Many Northern Californians today still believe that if such a canal were to be built, it would remove too much freshwater from the Delta, ruining the water quality and rendering it useless for farming and recreational purposes. They also fear that if the Delta was no longer needed by the state, funding for needed levee repairs and ecosystem improvements would dry up. For more information about the ongoing four-decade struggle over what should be done about the Delta's water management, see

Due to water recycling's unpopularity, major cities, such as San Diego and Los Angeles, allow their treated wastewater to flow to the ocean, unused. However, Orange County recently completed its Groundwater Replenishment System, a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant that utilizes filtering, screening, chemical processing and ultraviolet radiation to ultra-purify wastewater. Half of this water is then injected into the coastal aquifers to prevent sea water intrusion, and the other half is allowed to sink into the ground and replenish the groundwater basin. Orange County officials have overcome the obstacle of public opinion in part by an aggressive public education program.

Groundwater banking refers to the process of actively recharging aquifers with the intent to withdraw the water at a later time. Aquifers which have been previously overdrafted can easily provide the underground storage space. Many groundwater banks are operating in the southern San Joaquin Valley, and several southern California water agencies have water stored there. Groundwater banking projects are easier to implement than surface storage projects, do not suffer losses from evaporation, and are generally considered more environmentally-friendly. However, there are still potential issues to be resolved. There are those who might be concerned with environmental impacts, the effects of having standing water around, or whether groundwater withdrawals will affect neighboring wells. Groundwater storage is destined to be a part of future water planning, and might be most effective when combined with new surface water supplies.

The Tujunga Wash Greenway ProjectEven though much of Southern California is intensely developed, with nearly all the storm drains and rivers now paved concrete conduits flowing straight to the ocean, innovative projects such as the Augustus Hawkins Nature Park and the Tujunga Wash Greenway project are redirecting storm water and urban runoff into created natural areas that recharge local aquifers and reduce the amount of water dumped into local waterways. They also serve as valuable wildlife habitat as well as creating park-like areas the local communities can enjoy.


While little agreement currently exists among all stakeholders involved in California's water disputes, the Public Policy Institute of California has proposed "Goals for a modern California water policy" listed below:

Public Policy Institute of California's guidelines for state water policy


Easy. Conserve water. Fix your leaks, replace old toilets and appliances, and consider drought tolerant landscaping. Truth is, there is no magic silver bullet that's going to allow us to continue using our water as we please, growing grass in the desert where it clearly doesn't belong. Our water supply is not going to increase; we have tapped it out as much as we can. There is the very real possibility there is going to be less water in the future. More population means less per capita resources, so whether we build more dams or not, conservation has to be part of our future.

California faces challenges in providing a reliable water supply for current and future residents, but we are not without options. Finding the right combination that provides some real solutions while simultaneously satisfying all stakeholders will be the biggest challenge. The path we are on now is not sustainable, and trade-offs will be likely, perhaps even inevitable. However, to do nothing is to sit back and watch California's future literally dry up.